The Cooler Review

In 1989, Pauline Kael asked her readers, “Has the acting in American movies ever been better than it is right now?” Well, I have to ask the question again because time after time, movies - even bad movies - contain performances which go beyond the call of duty. It’s worth enduring Exorcist The Beginning for Stellan Skarsgaard’s performance. A nothing comedy like Bringing Down The House offers an object lesson in comic timing from Eugene Levy. A self-consciously worthy drama such as Monster is turned into something special through the fierce intensity of Charlize Theron’s acting. Great actresses like Patricia Clarkson and Catherine O’Hara are finally getting their chances and grabbing them with both hands. This issue sprang to mind while I was watching Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler, an enjoyable but minor Las Vegas drama which contains two performances which are so bloody brilliant that they elevate the film to plains of which it can barely have dreamed.

The story is nothing much. Like last year’s popular Intacto, it deals with the issue of luck, this time personified in Bernie (Macy), a loser who is employed in the Shangri-La casino as a ‘cooler’, a man with appalling luck who is considered to pass his bad fortune onto gamblers who are winning a little too often. His boss is Shelley (Baldwin), an old-time Vegas hand who is all too aware that the good days are coming to an end, forced as he is to put up with a new-style management wizzkid dogging his tracks. However, things are about to change. One night, Bernie hooks up with Natalie (Bello), a waitress at the casino who comes on to him and soon the pair are enjoying great, explosive, once-in-a-lifetime sex. As a result of this orgasmic encounter, Bernie’s luck begins to change. Bernie is planning to leave the casino in five days but it’s not long before the pressure for him to stay becomes increasingly strong.

The Cooler is not a great movie. It’s picture of Vegas moving from the old-guard to the accountants is familiar from a variety of other films – notably Scorsese’s Casino - and the themes of luck and fate seem a little too whimsical for comfort. The tone of the film is sometimes alarmingly inconsistent and it shifts from comedy to romance to drama in a manner which may, according to taste, seem decidedly jarring. It can’t decide what it wants to be and, in a way, this isn’t a bad thing. Certainly, there’s an unpredictability to the plotting which is attractive and it doesn’t fall into too many clichés. The ending in particular is a moment of transcendent beauty which, on first viewing, seems cosy and unlikely but, on later reflection, seems a logical result of a film which has already been bordering on fantasy for much of the time. But the horribly graphic violence which erupts every now and then may upset some viewers who are attracted by the gently sad tragicomedy of the rest of the film. It’s strange for me to say this and mean it in a positive way, but The Cooler is not all of a piece. It’s several different movies fighting for supremacy. But each of the different parts has beautiful things in it which are worth savouring. Sometimes it’s just looks or dialogue asides, or even the way that William H. Macy’s fringe hangs diagonally on his forehead. Sometimes it’s a few bars of Mark Isham’s bluesy saxophone. All the way through the film you’re wanting to keep watching to see what else it might become and whether it’s going to eventually cohere and resolve. Ultimately, it does but it’s a close shave.

The look of the film is certainly distinctive. Whereas Scorsese’s Casino treated Vegas as a hell of neon emptiness, The Cooler sees it as a dreamlike convergence of light and shade which is almost too evanescent to grasp hold of; perhaps it’s the sum of all the hopes and dreams which it contains and, equally, of the happiness and disappointment which it engenders. The film seems to be acknowledging the pulp noirish beauty of Vegas as well as the darkness at its heart and considering that this is a story all about luck and the dreams which keep us alive, that seems quite appropriate. James Whitaker’s lighting is consistently surprising and beautiful and Toby Corbett’s production design is fanatically minute in its level of detail. Kramer’s use of the camera is often flamboyant and the use of Steadicam is particularly notable. The script, by Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer, isn’t always so impressive, sometimes trading in Mametesque epigrams for their own sake rather than serving the characters. However, when the lines work, they have a zing which atones for a lot.

Most of the zingers come from Alec Baldwin. Always an actor worth watching – his self-amused turn in Pearl Harbour has the delicious sense of satisfaction of an actor who is delighted not to be stuck with romantic leads anymore – Baldwin relishes his character and the pithy dialogue written for him. Shelley is a character type familiar from a thousand movies but Baldwin renews the stereotype. He’s terrifying when his incipient violence erupts and often very funny, but what makes the character so interesting is the undercurrent of sadness. Shelley is a man living on borrowed time and he knows it, so he’s strutting around trying to forcibly avert his inevitable downfall. There’s not a trace of self-pity or sentimentality in this performance, it’s one of the best and most honest pieces of acting I’ve seen in recent months. The camera loves Baldwin and he gives it virtually all that he’s got – but, crucially, not everything. Baldwin knows when to hold back.

William H. Macy is equally good, although his work is more typical of the characters he usually plays and has therefore been put in the shade by Baldwin’s grandstanding. But Macy is a marvel, an actor who embodies the weakness within us all while still persuading us of the courage that is needed to face everyday life when all that’s waiting for you is disappointment. What’s great about this role, however, is that it develops and grows. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to see Macy finally getting the chance to do a love scene – and a pretty explicit one at that. It’s the kind of scene which gives middle-aged sad sacks like myself a little bit of hope. Macy works very well with the other actors too and he and Baldwin strike marvellous sparks off each other. Both actors have, of course, worked on David Mamet pieces and this may create a kind of sixth sense – few writers have the ability to bring actors into confrontation and collaboration like Mamet.

The rest of the cast is equally good and the level of performance why the question I began with seemed relevant. The Cooler isn’t, intrinsically, anything particularly special but the acting is so brilliant that it raises the film to another level. Take Paul Sorvino for example. He’s in two scenes, playing a broken down old crooner, about seven minutes of screen time and he breaks your heart. He tells a story about an old lion being forced out of his pride and you know that he’s willing his own death to arrive before he has to sing another song. There are great bits from Ron Livingstone and even Maria Bello – stuck with the worst role in the film – manages some variations on the ‘tart with a heart’ stereotype. Even Estelle Warren, an actress who I’ve been quite happy to ignore in previous films, has a good moment when she’s screaming with labour pains in the middle of a diner. It’s easy to feel good about a film which is peopled with such talented actors. They provide the glue which hold this messy but likeable creation together.

The Disc

Tartan’s Region 0 release of The Cooler is generally very pleasing. It looks to be a straight transition of the Lion’s Gate region 1 disc with the addition of a DTS soundtrack.

The film is presented in the correct aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s largely an exceptional transfer which makes the most of the stunning cinematography. Plenty of detail, superbly rich colours and satisfyingly deep blacks. Occasional artefacting in the very dark scenes is a minor flaw but not enough to spoil the overall experience.

The three soundtracks are really quite similar. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround tracks offer excellent dialogue and a great presentation of Mark Isham’s memorable score. There’s some surround activity, largely in the ambient sounds of the casino, but the dialogue largely remains in the centre. The Dolby Stereo track is absolutely fine but inevitably less atmospheric.

The extras are limited but they are generally very interesting. There are two commentary tracks, one featuring Wayne Kramer and Mark Isham, the other with Kramer, co-writer Frank Hannah and DP James Whitaker. Both are interesting, although there’s some overlap between the two. I found the one with Isham unexpectedly informative and a good technical discussion of the choices made by a composer when scoring a film. In addition, the disc contains an “Anatomy Of A Scene” featurette which is valuable in providing focus rather than breadth. We also get the original theatrical trailer which is oddly unrepresentative of the overall film.

A black mark added and a point deducted for no subtitles. No excuse for this so get your act together Tartan!! Menus are simple and nicely animated. There are 17 chapter stops.

The Cooler is a little unsatisfying as a whole but the actors work some genuine magic and bring the whole thing together. Tartan’s disc offers a good presentation of this film and if you missed it during it’s brief theatrical run then it’s well worth your time now it’s arrived on DVD.

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